Imams cool to Senate’s proposal to certify them


OTTAWA – The Conservative majority on the Senate’s security and defence committee has urged the federal government to explore imam training and certification in an effort help curb radicalization, one of 25 recommendations it made in an interim anti-terrorism report released Wednesday.

The report claims that some foreign-trained Muslim leaders have been spreading extremist ideology in Canada.

“Who is going to do the certifying?” said Ottawa imam Mohamad Jebara. “Islam is so diverse, like many religions. So what sect or school of thought are you going to certify?

“It is extremely complex,” he added. “It’s like having certification for Christian clergy. The question is: Would the Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons agree on requirements for certification? Obviously not.”

Targeting Muslim clergy exclusively could backfire, said Jebara, and result in further marginalizing Muslims.

It would be more acceptable to introduce “universal guidelines of mutual respect, tolerance and co-operation” for all clergy, he said.

“I don’t see certification as a solution,” added Jebara. “People will take it as discrimination and feel targeted. It would create a culture of mistrust and suspicion and we don’t need that. We need co-operation between the government and the people and if people don’t trust the government you won’t get co-operation.”

University of Ottawa Islamic scholar Salah Basalamah said he had “no problem in principle” with certification depending on who is authorized to do it.

“What I see from the Conservative government is that they have absolutely no credibility to certify anyone and anything related to Islam,’ he said.

But the trend of importing imams has become a “big problem” for North American communities and western Muslim communities in general, added Basalamah.

“What makes an imam a good imam is someone who understands his working environment, the community and its culture,” he said. “Imported imams lack the ability to speak to the realities of their congregation and they are not proficient enough in English or French when they are called to intervene in the media.

“There is a growing trend for homegrown imams who have much more credibility,’ he said.

Most imams have Bachelor or Masters degrees in Islamic studies but, says Jebara, some smaller Islamic communities can’t afford to employ full time religious leaders.

“Sometimes the volunteer might not have any extensive training in Islam and might be an engineer,” he said. “But the same thing happens with other religions (in small communities). How else do you meet the needs of the community?”

Canadian-trained imam Imtiaz Ahmed concurs that “homegrown” imams are the most effective.

“We agree that an imam should be in tune with the spiritual and social needs of his congregation and must be aware of Canadian values,” he said.

Ahmed is a missionary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which opened its own Canadian seminary 13 years ago in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. He was one of the first certified graduates from the college, studied theory and, in common with other religions, was placed in various communities in Canada.

“As far as foreign imams are concerned I know Canadian authorities have a process in place to determine who enters as an imam into Canada,’ he said. “They issue work permits accordingly.”

Governments across Europe have been engaging their Muslim communities in an effort to prevent radicalization, adds Basalamah.

“Every government tries to find serious partnerships on the ground in an effort to find grassroots institutions to take care of this without having to be on the front line,” he said. “Governments don’t have credibility in the eyes of Muslim communities around Europe so some Muslim institutions act as proxies. (It’s important) to make sure the certification process is credible in the eyes of the Muslim community.”

The Senate committee’s anti-terrorism report offers no specifics on certification and is not supported by Liberals on the committee.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said Thursday that the Senate committee’s recommendation “is not something our government is considering.”
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